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Aristocracy or Meritocracy? Office-holding Patterns in Late Medieval English Nunneries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Marilyn Oliva*
Fordham University, New York


The system by which medieval nuns and monks administered their monastic households has long been known to historians. Headed by a prioress, prior, abbess, or abbot, a group of officers executed the daily running of a monastery’s internal affairs by what is called the obedientiary system. But our evidence about the heads of the houses, their monastic officers, and their incumbent duties comes almost exclusively from the numerous accounts and studies of male houses. Knowledge about the officers and administration of female convents has been inferred largely from what we know about the male monasteries, and from a lone description of the officers and their duties found among the records of the convent of Barking Abbey.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1990

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1 Knowles, RO, 2, pp. 309–30; A. Leotaud, ‘Monastic officials in the Middle Ages’, DR, 56 (1938), pp. 391–409; Power, E., Medieval English Nunneries, (Cambridge, 1922), pp. 1324 Google Scholar; Smith, R. A. L., Collected Papers (London, 1947), pp. 5473 Google Scholar; Snape, R. H., English Monastic Finances in the Later Middle Ages (New York, 1926), pp. 2951 Google Scholar.

2 For the Barking Abbey description see; Dugdale, W., ed., Monasticon Anglicanum (London, 1817–40), 1, pp. 4425 Google Scholar; used by L. Eckenstein, Women UnderMonasticism (New York, 1896), p. 371; and Power, Medieval English Nunneries, pp. 131-2. Lilian Redstone, Three Carrow account rolls’, Norfolk Archaeology, 29 (1946), pp. 41-88, edited 3 fifteenth- and sixteenth- century cellaresses’ accounts for Carrow, but also used the Barking Abbey description of offices in her discussion.

3 Jessopp, A., ‘Ups and downs of a Norfolk nunnery’, in his Frivola, Simon Ryan and Other Papers (London, 1907), p. 49 Google Scholar; Power, pp. 4,13; S. Shahar, The Fourth Estate (New York, 1983), pp. 39–40.

4 Power, pp. 42-3.

5 Eckenstein, pp. 371-9; Power, pp. 132-4.

6 The diocese of Norwich included the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The 11 nunneries were Blackborough, Carrow, Crabhouse, Shouldham and Thetford Priories, and Marham Abbey, in Norfolk. The Suffolk houses were Bruisyard Abbey, Bungay, Campsey Ash, Flixton, and Redlingfield Priories.

7 I have constructed a data base which contains over 1,700 references to 542 individual nuns in the diocese of Norwich from 1350 to 1540. The data base draws information from wills, monastic household and manorial accounts, the works of antiquarian historians, episcopal registers, visitation records, pedigrees, heraldic visitations, Inquisitions Post Mortem, Exchequer and Court of Augmentation records, as well as the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII and the Suppression Papers. Because the sources for Shouldham are scanty, only some 38 percent, or 39 nuns, can be identified there from 1350-1540. The figures for the other 10 houses, though, are fairly consistent. My data allows me to calculate the average number of nuns in each monastery for the entire time period: Blackborough–9, Bruisyard–13, Bungay–12, Campsey Ash–20, Carrow–12, Crabhouse–8, Flixton–8, Marham–11, Redlingfield— 19, Shouldham–15, Thetford–9. The total nun population of the diocese was 897 for the 240 year period. The 542 identifiable nuns in the data base, then, represent roughly 76 per cent of all the nuns who lived in the diocese of Norwich from 1350 to 1540. For further information on the calculation of the above figures, see M. Oliva, ‘The convent and the community in late medieval England’ (Fordham D.Phil, thesis, 1990), Appendix B, and Tables 1 and 2.

8 Of the 542 nuns I can identify, 179 lived between 1350 and 1400,104 between 1400 and 1450, 125 between 1450 and 1500, and 135 were alive between 1500 and 1550.

9 For my definition of the titled aristocracy, see: G. W. Bernard, The Power of lhe Early Tudor Nobility (New York, 1985), pp. 173,176,197-208; M.Bush, The English Aristocracy: a Comparative Synthesis (Manchester, 1984), pp. 3-95; James, M., Family Lineage and Civil Society: a Study of Society, Politics and Mentality in the Durham Region, 1500-1640 (Oxford, 1974), p. 32 Google Scholar; McFarlane, K. B., The Nobility of Later Medieval England (Oxford, 1973), pp. 118 Google Scholar.

10 VCH, Norfolk, 2, p. 413; for her father see Dugdale, W., Baronage of England (London, 1675), p. 235 Google Scholar, and Inquisitions Post Mortem (hereafter IPM), 12, 39-43 Edward III, p. 307.

11 For the social standing of early medieval nuns, see: S. Hilpisch, A History of Benedictine Nuns (Minnesota, 1968), pp. 40,47; Shahar, The Fourth Estate, p. 39.

12 For the distinction between the two groups and a definition of the upper gentry, see C. Carpenter, The fifteenth-century gentry and their estates’, in M.Jones, ed., Gentry and Lesser Nobility in Late Medieval Europe (New York, 1986), pp. 36-60; J. P. Cooper, ‘The social distribution of land and men, 1463-1700’, EHR, 20 (1967), pp. 419-40; J. Cornwall, The early Tudor gentry’, EcHR, ser. 2, 17 (1965), pp. 456-75; Denholm-Young, N., The County Gentry in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1969)Google Scholar; Mingay, G. E., The Gentry: The Rise and Fall of a Ruling Class (London, 1976), esp. pp. 130 Google Scholar; T. H. Swales, ‘The redistribution of the monastic lands in Norfolk at the Dissolution’, Norfolk Archaeology, 34 (1966), pp. 14-44; R. Virgoe, The Crown and local government: East Anglia under Richard II’, in F. H. R. Du Boulay and C. Barron, eds, The Reign of Richard II (London, 1971), pp. 218-41; and R. Virgoe, The Crown, magnates and local government in fifteenth-century East Anglia’, in J. R. L. High-field and R. Jeffs, eds, The Crown and Local Communities in England and France in the Fifteenth Centuries (Gloucester, 1981), pp. 72-87.

13 IPM, 39-43 Edward III, 12, p. 128.

14 W. Rye, The Visitation of Norfolk, Harleian Society, 32 (1891), p. 64.

15 Caley and Hunter, J., eds, Valor Ecclesiasticus (London, 1810-34), 3, p. 417 Google Scholar: Campsey was valued at ¿213 55.; the rest of the houses were under ¿65.

16 For use of this term and its meaning, see P. W. Fleming, ‘Charity, faith, and the gentry of Kent, 1422-1529’, in A. J. Pollard, ed., Property and Politics (Gloucester, 1984), p. 36; and James, Family, Lineage and Civil Society, p. 31; Cornwall, ‘Tudor Gentry’, p. 460; Mingay, The Gentry, pp. 13-14; and Virgoe, The Crown Magnates’, p. 73.

17 PRO, SP 5/3/29.

18 For Katherine, see Jessopp, ed., Visitation, pp. 134,219,290; her father’s will is Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich (hereafter SRO), Suffolk Archdeaconry Register, 10, fols 51-2.

19 SRO, Archdeaconry of Sudbury, Baldwyne R2/9/11.

20 Norfolk Record Office (hereafter NRO), Norwich Consistory Court (hereafter NCC), 26 Doke.

21 For my definition of urban dwellers, see J. Patten, ‘Patterns of migration and movement of labour to three pre-industrial East Anglian towns’, in J. Patten, ed., Pre-Industrial England: Geographical Essays (Folkestone, 1979), pp. 143-62; J. Patten, ‘Population distribution in Norfolk and Suffolk during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, ibid., pp. 71-92; Platt, C., The English Medieval Town (London, 1979)Google Scholar; S. Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London (Michigan, 1948).

22 For Margaret, see A.Jessopp, ed., Visitation of the Diocese of Norwich, AD 1495-1532, PCS, 43 (1888), p. 17; for her father, see NRO, NCC, Brosyerd, fol. 250.

23 For Alice, see Jessopp, ed., Visitation, pp. 36, 133, 219, 290; for her family see her mother’s will: PRO, Perogative Court of Canterbury (hereafter PCC), Prob. 11/8/block 9.

24 For this definition, see Cornwall, Tudor Gentry’, pp. 464–5; Cooper, The social distribution’, pp. 426-7; James, Family Lineage, p. 38; and Mingay, The Gentry, pp. 3,6,27.

25 Jessopp, ed., The Visitation, pp. 134,219,291.

26 SRO, Suffolk Archdeaconry Register, 10, fol. 22.

27 SRO, Suffolk Archdeaconry Register, IC/AA2/6A, 19.

28 W.J. Blake, ‘Fuller’s list of Norfolk gentry’, Norfolk Archaeology, 32 (1961), pp. 261-91; Bloomfield, F., An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, 11 vols (London, 1805-10)Google Scholar; A. Campling, East Anglian Pedigrees, Norfolk Record Society, 13 (1940); H. Clarke and A. Campling, eds, The Visitation of Norfolk Made AD 1664, Norfolk Record Society, 4 and 5 (1934); Copinger, W., The Manors of Suffolk: Notes on their History and Devolution, 7 vols (London, 1905-11)Google Scholar; Corder, J., ed., The Visitation of Suffolk, 1561 (London, 1981)Google Scholar; Cozens-Hardy, B. and Kent, E., The Mayors of Norwich, 1403-1835 (Norwich, 1983)Google Scholar; Dashwood, G. H., ed., The Visitation of Norfolk in the Year 1563 (Norwich, 1878)Google Scholar; Fuller, T., The History of the Worthies of England, 3 vols (London, 1840)Google Scholar; Gunn, S. J., Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk c.1483-1585 (Oxford, 1988)Google Scholar; Strange, H. Le, Norfolk Official Lists (Norwich, 1890)Google Scholar; MacCulloch, D., Suffolk and the Tudors (Oxford, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Muskett, J. J., Suffolk Manorial Families, 2 vols (Exeter, 1900)Google Scholar; Rye, W., Norfolk Families (Norwich, 1911-13)Google Scholar; Virgoe, ‘The Crown, Magnates’, passim; and Virgoe, ‘The Crown and local government,” passim; Wedgwood, J. C., ed., History of Parliament, 1439-1509, Register (London 1936-8)Google Scholar.

Tillotson, Monastery and Society, p. 24. See also: J. H. Tillotson, Marrick Priory: a Nunnery in Late Medieval Yorkshire, Borthwick Paper, 75 (York, 1989), p. 6, where he further cautions against assuming that the high visibility of upper status nuns means that they accurately reflect the overall female monastic population. For similar conclusions, see R. B. Dobson, ‘Recent prosopographical research in late medieval English history: university graduates, Durham monks, and York canons’, in N. Bulst and J.-P. Genet, eds, Medieval Lives and the Historian: Studies in Medieval Prosopography (Kalamazoo, 1986), pp. 189-90.

30 Barbara Mason’s will is dated 1538 and is printed in S. Tymms, ed., Wills and Inventories from the Registers of the Commisary of Bury St Edmunds and the Archdeaconry, PCS, (1850), pp. 133-5; Elizabeth’s Dawney’s will: NRO, NCC, 47 Mayett, dated 1539. Grace Sampson’s will: NRO, NCC, 235 Bircham, dated 1561. Ela Buttery’s will: NRO, NCC, 261 Hyll, dated 1546. Cecily Fastolf s will: NRO, NCC, 131 Lyncolne, dated 1552.

31 NRO, NCC, 93-4 Cooke, dated 1540.

32 Barbara Jermingham’s will is dated 1537, and is printed in, W. S. Fitch, Suffolk Monasteries, 4 vols (Suffolk, nd), 1, p. 235.

33 For example, Elizabeth Throckmorton, last abbess of Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire, returned to her family’s manor in Coughton, with two of her fellow ex-nuns, where they continued to live a religious life; VCH, Cambridge, 2, pp. 301-2, and VCH, Warwicks, 3, p. 78. For other examples, see G. A. J. Hodgett, ed., ‘The state of the ex-religious and former chantry priests in the diocese of Lincoln, 1547-1574’, LRS, 53 (1959), passim,

34 Tillotson, Marrick Priory, p. 6. He finds that Marrick Priory’s nuns came mosdy from the lesser landowners who lived in the surrounding area.

35 Jessopp, Visitation, pp. 134, 219,291.

36 Ibid.

37 W. Rye, Carrow Abbey, Otherwise Carrow Priory (Norwich, 1890), p. 42; NRO, NRS, 26883 42 E8; and VCH, Norwich, 2, p. 354.

38 Rye, Carrow Abbey, p. 42; NRO, Hare 5954 227 X 1.

39 NRO, Hare 2201 194 X 5; Hare 2203 194 X 5; Hare 2204 194 X 5.

40 SRO.HD 1538/327.

41 Tillotson, Marrick Priory, p. 5, cites an example of an illegitimate nun, Alice de Ravenswathe, who, upon being elected prioress by her sisters, obtained a dispensation from the archbishop so that she could accept the office. Her lack of social standing must have been unimportant to the nuns who wanted her to be head of their household.

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